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The Middle Man. Screenshot: YouTube.

Magic in the Dark: What’s playing at Ottawa’s independent cinemas—May 16 to 31

By Barbara Popel on May 16, 2022

Lots of variety the next two weeks at the ByTowne Cinema and the Mayfair Theatre. My favourite film from 2021 continues its run, there are films from acknowledged masters and up-and-comers, and a big basket of free European short films. Rounding everything out are two exciting classics.

First, my favourite 2021 film, Petite Maman, is at the ByTowne for a few more days. After her beloved grandmother’s death, 8-year-old Nelly and her parents go to her mother’s childhood home to clear it out. Her mother, Marion, is grief-stricken and withdrawn. Nelly encounters a little girl named Marion in the forest who looks just like her. They become immediate friends. This is an exquisite emotional experience from director Céline Sciamma in her follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Two Globe and Mail critics said it’s a “perfect little film…72 minutes of pure, heart-breaking, whimsical cinematic wonder” and that it’s “as compact and brilliant as a jewel.”

There are three films from international masters:

Parallel Mothers is back at the ByTowne. It’s one of Pedro Almodovar’s best films. Penelope Cruz’s performance stands out in a very strong cast. She’s a middle-aged single mother who, when in hospital giving birth to her daughter, befriends a teenager who is also giving birth. Later they reconnect, but only after tragedy has struck. And there’s a secondary plot: Cruz’s character is on a quest to disinter the remains of her great-grandfather who was “disappeared” during Franco’s brutal rule.

Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s film Drive My Car was fêted by critics last year and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. At about the same time as he was making this film, he was also making Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a triptych of everyday encounters that evolve into an imaginative world of possibilities. One episode deals with an unexpected love triangle, another a failed seduction, and the third an encounter with the past. I can’t wait to see this! It’s at the ByTowne.

When Vortex appeared on the Mayfair’s calendar, I was shocked. Not because the film’s subject—an elderly woman descending rapidly into dementia and the reactions of her husband and son—is shocking. Rather, it’s because of the reputation of director Gaspar Noé, who is infamous for his confrontational subject matter, which often involves violent sexual behaviour and nihilistic despair. Critics have praised the veteran actors who play the husband and wife, and used adjectives such as “soulful,” “moving,” and “compassion.” But I also expect that it will reveal things about the approaching vortex of death that most of us would rather not look at.

Here are a few of the many promising up-and-comers:

Operation Mincemeat is based on a real event: During World War II, the British concocted a scheme to convince the Germans that the invasion of southern Europe would begin in Greece, not in Sicily. This involved a corpse with falsified papers that washed up on the shores of Spain. The actors are a “who’s who” of fine British films, and if you watch carefully you’ll see that one of the minor officers in British Intelligence is a fellow named Ian Fleming, who is assiduously typing a spy novel. Playing at the Mayfair.

Into the Weeds, at the ByTowne, is a documentary by accomplished director Jennifer Baichwal and it’s almost as thrilling as Operation Mincement. Those of you who know about the lawsuits against Monsanto about its ultra-successful weed killer, RoundUp, may have heard about this case—the first to be brought against Monsanto by a California groundskeeper and his dedicated legal team. The legal manoeuvring is fascinating. Even if you aren’t aware of the shocking facts behind this case, you owe it to yourself to see this film.

Perhaps the quirkiest film at the ByTowne is a joint Canadian/Danish/German/Norwegian satire called The Middle Man. A sad-sack guy in a dead-end town (Sault Ste Marie, if I’m not mistaken) gets a job as the town’s “middle man.” There’s been a rash of quirky accidental deaths, and the middle man’s job is to inform the next of kin whenever there’s one of these (often bizarre) accidents. And yes, that’s Paul Gross as the town’s laconic police chief. Have fun spotting the other Canadian actors in the cast.

Earlier I mentioned free European short films. There are three collections, curated by the Canadian Film Institute, on offer at the ByTowne under the title “European Union Short Film Festival (EUSFF)“. I’ve seen several of these films at other festivals and am looking forward to seeing more of these little gems. Although attendance is free, you need to get a ticket to each collection.

Finally, a major classic and a thrilling 1919 documentary:

It’s the 50th anniversary of Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, a film that often appears in top 10 lists and boasts a 100 Metacritic score. If you’ve never seen it or want to savour it again, you can see the 4K restoration at the ByTowne.

South (1919) is a new restoration of what may be the world’s first documentary feature. Its subject: Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 to 1916 expedition to Antarctica. His ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice, stranding the crew. The ByTowne offers you the rare opportunity to see this film.


Dates, times and tickets for the ByTowne are at www.bytowne.ca and for the Mayfair Theatre at www.mayfairtheatre.ca.